Refugees of the world share their stories
For most of us the word refugee refers to a collective group of people. Them. Others. Far away. They pop up on our TV screens and on our phones. At first it was in boats heading into Europe, then it was fleeing for their lives out of Syria and right now another group are escaping both famine and war in South Sudan.
But they are us. We are them. This heaving mess of humanity is ours. And behind the veils, behind the boats, behind the warzones are mums just like me, with kids just like mine. Because there’s really no difference in what we want for our children, only in what we can give them.
Over the years I’ve sat with many refugees as they’ve shared their stories of surviving war, humiliating rape, torture, slavery, abuse and the murder of loved ones. The pain they describe is unfathomable. Before I started doing humanitarian photography/ storytelling, my honest mental temptation was to imagine that people who endured such things ‘on the news’ are somehow fundamentally different to me. Maybe, somehow, they just don’t feel things like I do. They’re “used to it”. Maybe they expect less, care less, hope for less, want less or need less. But painfully, over time, I have seen that they are exactly like me. And what they endured on a mattress or what they endured as they fled for their lives is in no way easier for them because they are poor.
So let me take you to the front lines of the refugee crisis. I’ve got some people I’d love you to meet. Congo Parts of Congo have been at war for more than 20 years and it’s estimated more than five million lives have been lost.
“My name is Rosemary*. When I was five I watched the rebels rape my mother and kill my father. The rebels said they would raise me to be their wife. I got my period at 11 years old. That night one of the men raped me; the rape continued from that time on. Sometimes all five of them would rape me one after the other. When I was 15 I stole $USD1000 and escaped. I begged a truck driver to take me to my home but there were strangers there. I was worried the rebels would look for me so I moved to another part of Congo. Then war came back and I fled to a Kenyan refugee camp. I now live in Uganda and work as a UNHCR interpreter. Once, I was interpreting for a mental health patient and the things she was saying brought back many memories. They referred her (to Tearfund); I decided to visit their office too. They showed me that I was brave – that I survived.”
The youngest nation on earth is facing war and famine. Right now there are 800,000 South Sudanese living in refugee camps in Uganda alone.
“My name is Ayenyo and I am 35 years old. I have seven children aged 3-10 years old. When the war broke out we had to leave quickly. We saw many dead bodies as we fled, we also saw people screaming as they were dying. My husband disappeared as we made our way here. My brother also is missing. By the time we reached Uganda the suffering was too much and we passed through a lot of stress. But in the camp we arrived to more issues. After we arrived I started talking to myself and my senses were running away from me. I had seen so many dead bodies but had to keep going to save myself and my own children. I had nightmares; my children had bad dreams and weren’t sleeping. Luckily, they (Tearfund) came and taught us how to manage our stress. I really felt relieved and a little bit of hope for the future. My request is that they do not leave us alone. We still have a lot of trauma and we want to continue receiving the service.”
Burundi has suffered for many years from political instability and episodes of ethnic violence. Many Burundians have fled to neighbouring countries as refugees.
“My name is Janet. In 1993 the rebels came and killed my first born and my parents in front of me. In 2008 the rebels came and called my husband outside. They killed him and our two children that followed him outside. Then they burned our house down. The only children who survived were the ones at school. I went to get them but one was never seen again. In 2008 I came to Nakivale Refugee Settlement. I had a miserable life. I had high blood pressure from extreme stress. It took two years for my stress levels to come down. Because I had no husband or source of income, my children were never able to return to school. They were forced to drop out. That was really hard for me. The thing that traumatises me the most is when I see fire ... it reminds me of that day. I wanted to run, be mad and not talk to anyone. Through (Tearfund’s) programme I’ve learned a lot. When you share your trauma, it loses its grip. It gets released.”
The humanitarian crisis is played out daily on the news. But it was Roula who brought it to life for me.
“Before the war my situation was very stable. My first two babies were girls and then I got a baby boy. When I looked at him I felt like I owned the whole world. Then the war came. One day we had to flee. I was eight months pregnant. As we were running snipers started shooting at me. I was holding my son across my chest; the bullet went through his shoulder to his heart. There is nothing I could ever say to explain this moment. If I live or die, I will never be able to explain it. I later heard that ISIS took our land. After they stole everything they bombed our house. When I came to Lebanon I felt very lost. Soon after, they (Tearfund) came around our family and gave me hope. It is difficult to live here because I used to have my own house. Now I just wish for my own tent. (Tearfund) have made things easier. They’ve provided for our basic needs and helped get my girls back in school.
Iraq currently hosts more than one million internally displaced people and refugees.
“My name is Shamme. I am 27 and I have three daughters. I remember the day ISIS came to Sinjar. They separated my daughters and I from my husband. They took us to Syria and told us we have no God and no humanity. An ISIS man came and forced me to marry him. If I refused to sleep with him he would threaten to rape my daughters instead. One day he told me he was going to blow himself up and was selling me to another man. This man was so bad. Once we tried to escape and he found out and put electricity on us and gave us electric shocks. I saw women being stoned to death and many people with no heads lying on the ground. I struggled to sleep and felt like I was going crazy. I saw a 10-year-old girl given drugs and then gang-raped. One day we managed to escape through a smuggler. We walked for three days to get to safety. When I went to (Tearfund’s) programme it made me feel better because we talked about how God can give you hope.”
Ayenyo, South Sudan Janet, Burundi
Rosemary*, Congo Social Justice